"The Majesty That He Was": Columbia Colleagues Remember Edward Said
by Daniel Pipes
Oct 2, 2003
updated Apr 24, 2004
It was to be expected that Edward Said would receive outlandish encomia upon his death on Sept. 25, 2003. But the professor of literature must be spinning in his grave at the purple prose inflicted on him today by one grieving acolyte, a colleague with a list of titles as long ("Chair of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies, and the Director of Graduate Studies at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University") as his command of English style is short. Readers owe it to themselves to undergo the full experience of Hamid Dabashi's hagiography, but here are some extracts:
- We were all like birds flying around the generosity of his roof, tiny dandelions joyous in the shade of his backyard, minuscule creatures pasturing on the bounteous slopes of the mountain that he was. The prince of our cause, the mighty warrior, the Salah al-Din of our reasoning with mad adversaries, source of our sanity in despair, solace in our sorrow, hope in our own humanity, is now no more.
- Today the world is at once poorer in his absence and yet richer through his memory – and precisely in that paradox dwell the seeds of our dissent, the promise of our future, the solemnity of our oath at the sacred site of his casket.
- To my dying day, I will cherish the precise spot next to Miller Theater on the corner of 116th and Broadway [in New York City] where I met Edward for the first time and went up to him and introduced myself – the gratitude of a liberated voice in my greetings.
- Today, of the myriad of things I have learned from Edward Said, nothing matters to me more than the rhapsodic eloquence of his voice – the majesty, confidence, courage, audacity, and poise of his diction.
- For years after I had come to Columbia, I could not quite reconcile the public, mythic, iconic Edward Said, and the immediate Edward of my increasing acquaintance and friendship, camaraderie and solidarity. It was as if there was an Edward Said the Magnificent for the rest of the world and then another Edward for a happy few. The two were not exactly irreconcilable; they posited a question, a distance in need of traversing – how could a mortal so fragile, frail, and accessible cut a global figure so monumental, metaphoric, parabolic?
- The closer I became to Edward the more impossible it seemed to tell what exactly it was that went into the making of his heroic character in such mythic measures.
- At his death, Edward Said was the moral mandate, the volcanic outburst of a life otherwise wasted in and by accidents that accumulate to nothing. Exile was his fate and he triumphantly turned it into the fruit of his life – the gift he gave to a world now permanently cast into an exilic departure from itself.
- How to remain an incessantly moral voice in a morally impermanent world, how to transfigure the disfigured mutations of the world into a well-mannered measure of truth, how to dismantle the power that false knowledge projects and yet insist that the just is right and the truth is beautiful – that is the legacy of Edward Said, right from the mountain top of his majestic peak visible from afar, down to the slopes of his bountiful pastures which few fortunate souls were blessed to call home.
And this passage, Dabashi's testimonial to Said's nefarious influence on Middle East studies: "Take Orientalism out of [the] curriculum, Edward Said out of our consciousness, and my generation of immigrant intellectuals would all be a bunch of dispirited souls susceptible to chronic melancholy, or else, horribile dictu, who would pathetically mutate into native informers of one sort or another – selling their souls to soulless sultans in DC or else to senile patriarchs in Princeton."
Finally, candor requires me to mention that yours truly makes an appearance in middle of this dirge, though not by name. It may not come as a shock to learn that my reputation does not quite rival that of St. Edward: "an infamous charlatan [who] slandered me in a New York tabloid and created a scandalous website to malign my public stand against the criminal atrocities he supports." The reader will no doubt be relieved to learn that Dabashi's sorrows at being impugned by me were lightened when his "prince" and "majestic peak" left him a voice message ("Hamid, my dear, this is Edward . . .") that Dabashi found luminous: "There was something providential in his voice – it restored hope in humanity."
That this embarrassing eulogy is the best a much-titled professor at a leading university can write again confirms the degeneration of Middle East studies. (October 2, 2003)
Apr. 24, 2004 update: Much behind schedule, in the classic academic style, the MESA Bulletin for December 2003 just arrived and in it an obituary for Edward Said by none other than Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies (his title is something the bulletin does not mention, by the way). Although Khalidi's prose is a shade less purple and his tone less mawkish than his colleague Dabashi's, he is writing for the guild publication and not for a wild-eyed publication like Counterpunch. The standards, accordingly, are different for Khalidi – and higher. Some highlights from his embarrassingly servile obituary:
- The passing of Edward Said has meant the loss of one of the most profound, original, and influential thinkers of the past half-century.
- We know more about Said's life and background and concerns than we do about the lives of most scholars because of his fascinating memoir, Out of Place. [DP comment: Not a word here about the deception that Said had perpetuated about his having grown up in Cairo, as revealed by Justus Weiner.]
- The seminal Orientalism (1978) … aroused the antagonism of persistent critics. Their caviling is with us still a quarter of a century later, in the form of affirmations that the entire Middle East field is subject to Said's baneful influence, and other even more farfetched assertions. [DP comment: Presumably a backhanded plug for Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand.]
- His humanism, his utter lack of chauvinism, and his deeply sympathetic understanding of the tragedies that have afflicted the history not only of the Palestinians, but also of the Jews, gave him a unique ability to speak across the divides that bedevil discourse on this subject. [DP comment: A humanism perhaps best remembered by the picture of Said throwing a stone at Israeli border guards].
- Edward Said was an extraordinary figure, one who was truly appreciated in the academy and in arenas of cultural and intellectual life the world over. Like Noam Chomsky and very few others, he managed not only to reshape his own field of scholarly endeavor, but to transcend it, influencing other fields and disciplines, and going well beyond the narrow boundaries of the American academy to become a true public intellectual, and a passionate voice for humanistic values and justice in an imperfect world.
Related Topics: Academia, Middle East studies
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